Can-Do-Ability: Answers and Solutions from my personal experiences of living with a disability

10 Tips For Talking To Someone In A Wheelchair

25 Feb 2011‘Wheels for a day’, is a campaign that is organised through Paraquad in Australia. It has been running for five years so far, and is held in November, during Spinal Cord Awareness Week.

It gives high profile Australian’s, such a CEO’s, Athletes and Celebrities a chance to see what it’s like to be in a wheelchair. ‘Wheels for a day’s’ main aim is to raise awareness about spinal cord injuries and how to prevent them, it also raises the issue of wheelchair accessibility.

Some people think it’s not such a great idea because it depicts that being in a wheelchair, is a novelty.

I think it’s a great initiative to raise awareness of what life is like for the millions of Australian wheelchair users, and also to open the eyes of those who don’t realise how difficult getting around in a wheelchair can be.

On the ‘Wheels for a day’ website, there is a short article, which includes some wheelchair etiquette tips. It’s a great read, so if you are faced with talking to someone in a wheelchair, you’ll know exactly what to do, without patronising them. Some of the tips are quite funny to me and probably most other wheelchair users, as I can relate to them so well, I can’t help but to have a giggle at some people’s ignorance. Even though, it’s mostly unintentional.

1. Speak directly to the person, not to someone else nearby
(I had an incident last year while wedding dress shopping, when I asked the sales assistant a question, she would direct her answers to my friend who was with me. Let’s just say, I didn’t end up buying my dress from there)

2. If a conversation lasts for more than a few minutes, consider sitting down
(To me, I think this is a personal thing, if someone sits down while talking to me, it can make me feel a bit uncomfortable and obliged to stay longer than what I was planning on, so I think it depends on how long you’ve known the person and what the conversation is about)

3. When greeting a person, it is appropriate to shake hand. If they are unable to shake hands, a touch, a nod or a similar gesture is fine
(There are a lot of people out there who get quite awkward when meeting a wheelchair user for the first time. I have experienced this a lot in job interviews, like they don’t know what to do and there’s an uncomfortable moment where they go to sit straight down and I put my hand out to shake theirs, then they realise they are allowed to shake my hand)

4. Focus on the person first not the disability
(This would relate to anyone who has a disability)

5. Don’t shout, speak patronisingly or force enthusiasm. Forget the ‘speed limit’ jokes.
(This one cracks me up! Talking loudly or as if I am a child is very embarrassing, this happens a lot with elderly citizens who meet me. Also, people, the speed limit jokes are real old! Like: ‘Do you have a licence for that thing?’ or ‘Here comes speedy’ – It’s not funny anymore, probably never was, so just stop embarrassing yourself)

6. Always ask the person if they would like your assistance
(It’s quite common for people to just assume that because I’m in a wheelchair, that I automatically need help. I understand that they are probably just being nice, but when you get about 20 people a day asking; ‘Would you like a hand’ or ‘Are you right there?’ it can get quite frustrating, sometimes I feel like wearing a sign around my neck that say “I am independent and if I need assistance, I will ask”)

7. Accept “no” for an answer and don’t hover. People using wheelchairs have their own
unique way of achieving everyday tasks
(This is SO true! If I deny an offer of help and then the person stands there like a hawk watching over me, it makes me feel nervous. Like if I’m putting my groceries in the car and they are heavy, someone will ask if I need a hand and I say no, then they stand there and watch me, and the slightest bit of struggle that they see me encounter, they rush back over to snatch the bag off me and put it in my car. Again, I understand that they are only trying to help, but in this type of instance, it can cause me to rush and probably end up dropping everything, it also makes me feel like I’m not capable enough to carry out a simple daily task)

8. If unsure, ask and follow instructions given
(Great tip! People with disabilities have their own way of doing things that they feel familiar or comfortable with, so even though it may look strange, they know the best way for them to go about something)

9. A wheelchair is part of a person's body space, don't push it, lean on it or tap it, respect the wheelchair as you would another person’s limbs
(YES! One of my pet hates is when someone leans on my chair.... I feel like my personal space is being invaded, they could also tip me over. I once had someone at a previous workplace, push me and my chair out of their way because they didn’t want to answer a question I was asking them. You wouldn’t just walk up behind someone and move them out of the way. Same goes for someone in a wheelchair)

10. In a work environment people using wheelchairs require turning and circulation space. Keep pathways and corridors clear
(This is definitely something that ‘walkers’ can be oblivious of. It’s much harder for someone in a wheelchair to manoeuvre around a box or a pile of clothes than it is to just step over them, so keep that in mind)

Click on the link to see the original list of etiquette tips for speaking to someone in a wheelchair: http://www.wheelsforaday.com.au/WheelsTopTips_sydney_web.pdf

I’d love to hear any other examples of wheelchair etiquette tips, please add any humorous encounters that you’ve had as a wheelchair user. Or if there’s something you’d like to clear up that all able bodied people should know, then, let’s hear it.


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Previous Comments

George from Melbourne posted on 25 Jan 2014
Hi - tip 6 is highly contradictory. Ask if people need help, yet you hate being asked if you need help so often?How do we get the balance right?

Josh from Darwin NT posted on 13 Jan 2013
Hi Iv seen a girl in an electric chair shes about my age. Iv seen her a few times around town at the shopping centre also at the bus stop. I would like to meet her, but not sure how to go and say hello to her.

Fiona Elson from Spearwood Western Australia posted on 4 May 2011
glad to see there is tips .I have known a few people in wheelchairs ,and have noticed that there is way to many jokes about wheely,speeding etc.I find it a little hard let alone my mate who has become a paraplegic .but i am also recovering after a car rollover and Doug and i have a brachial plexas injury .So we are helping each other ,and i know the frustrating times are ahead ,but just let them be .i sure they would ask for assistance.As i needed when i damaged both my arms

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